By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader
The Gene Siskel Film Center located in downtown Chicago always has a great slate of movies that often don’t get on other big screens in the Chicago area. For the next couple of weeks, the Center, named for the late film critic Gene Siskel, will present its “Stranger Than Fiction” documentary film series. Through February 2, the Center celebrates the art of the documentary in a special way. This selection of ten Chicago premieres includes films made from a highly personal point of view, as well as those that delve into issues, personalities, or evolving communities through personal interaction. Here are a few choices that are worth traveling downtown to see.
They Call Us Monsters – January 20 and January 25.
Three California teens charged as adults for offenses including first-degree murder await sentences of up to 200 years each in this provocative documentary that brings the dilemma surrounding juvenile perpetrators of heinous crimes into the light in all its complexity. Director Ben Lear suggests no easy answers, but creates a troubling group portrait of the three youngsters, each a gang member who targeted supposed gang rivals. Jarad (charged with an attempted killing spree that left one victim paralyzed for life), Juan (charged with first degree murder), and Antonio (charged with two attempted murders) are followed through the weeks of a prison screenwriting class, where rambunctious hi-jinks, imaginative autobiographical scenarios, and pranks reveal an immaturity that gives glaring testimony to their imperfect understanding of the gravity of their crimes.
This film gives an up close look at the incarceration of youth and shows the three teens in classes for film, working with a mentor who leads them through making a film based on their experiences. The situations that landed these three in jail are chronicled, as well, showing that they were from broken homes and/or were caught up in situations under which they thought they had no control or were drawn to for a sense of family. In the end, however, they ended up in jail, facing such unconscionable sentences. This film would be a good lesson for youth to steer as far away from trouble as possible.
The Uncondemned – January 28 and January 30.
This documentary tells the thrilling story behind an epic 1997 human rights trial that pits a handful of underdog lawyers and traumatized Rwandan rape victims against a system that had never acknowledged rape as a genocidal crime. Reconstructing the three-year legal process step by step, and bringing the narrative forward into the present, the filmmakers trace the history of the Rwandan conflict’s horrific violence against women and profiles those brave enough to come forward with testimony, as they recount the work of researchers and lawyers venturing into uncharted territory to build a case. In English, French, and Kinyarwanda with English subtitles.
Midsummer in Newtown – January 29 and February 2.
The power of art to assist in healing even the most profound grief is a reality that unfolds in tentative and ultimately joyful steps as director Lloyd Kramer follows a troupe of Broadway artists who come to Newtown, Connecticut, to stage the pop musical “A Rockin’ Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Cast largely with children who survived the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which occurred in December 2012, the production galvanizes the once-close small town from the start, bringing withdrawn and fearful kids and heartbroken moms and dads into a creative process where trust is restored and hidden talents shine in the safe space of the performing community.
The Gene Siskel Film Center is located at 164 N. State St. For more information, visit www.siskelfilmcenter.org.